Vaughan Williams’ Fen Country

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

There are many musical works suffering from neglect, but Vaughan William’s In the Fen Country surely falls into the category marked ‘baffling’. It’s accessible, beautifully written and characteristic of a popular composer who is often associated – despite his wide-ranging oeuvre – with pastoral music. And yet I’ve never seen notice of a live performance, and heard it only once on the radio.

Perhaps the title of the piece hasn’t done it any favours; ‘Fen Country’ doesn’t set off the most scenic train of thought. In fact, going by how many people tell me they dislike flat landscapes – a common refrain from homesick fellow students when I studied at Cambridge – the fens could be a contender for least-loved rural area of Britain. In his wonderful novel Waterland, Graham Swift describes the fens as “a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing”. For a Hampshire-born like myself, there is something foreign, even unnatural about this dead-flatness; the fens share more in character with the Netherlands across the North Sea than they do with most of England.

And yet, perhaps I’m a little unusual here, but I like the fens for all their strangeness. They have their own peculiar atmosphere. As the picture above shows, there is very little to distract the eye from the sky and the far horizon, and this gives them a kind of fascinating emptiness.

Over a hundred years before me, Vaughan Williams studied at Cambridge, lying just to the south of the fens, and his second wife Ursula told in her biography of the composer how he took part in fen skating in cold winters. Clearly Vaughan Williams was taken with East Anglia: in addition to In the Fen Country, he wrote three orchestral Norfolk Rhapsodies based on folksongs, though only the first was published.

Like the fenland landscape, the music doesn’t impose itself: it starts with a simple quiet melody on the cor anglais. As woodwinds join in, the harmonies become richer. Vaughan Williams expands on the shape of the opening theme with carefully paced contrapuntal momentum, building up a web of long melodic lines that suggest wind sweeping over the fields. In a moment that occurs several times in the piece, a sequence of low brass chords are answered by high violins, evoking dark clouds pierced by shafts of sunlight.

These opening minutes demonstrate an impressively assured craftsmanship and sensitive, atmospheric orchestration. From here the music covers a wide emotional range, from hushed nocturnal stillness to brilliant crescendo. But the kind of cosy, heartfelt warmth of The Lark Ascending,  Vaughan Williams’ most celebrated pastoral work, is absent. Even the sunnier moments are tempered with a coolness, and in its bleaker passages the music shares the haunting melancholy of its East Anglian cousin the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1.

The closing passages of In the Fen Country, however, really deserve a special mention. After the repetition of earlier material, including the opening theme scored poignantly for solo violin, there is a remarkable coda: a series of quiet chords slowly descend as a string melody rises, moving further and further apart. It’s very simple, but the effect is a powerful sense of widening space, as if the fenland skies are opening up to infinity. This expansion reaches its apex in a hushed, widely spaced G major chord, the first of three modal cadences, G major to D minor, repeated in different orchestrations. The major-minor inflection here beautifully encapsulates a kind of deflated melancholy, a yearning for something missing.

Having tilted our gaze upwards, Vaughan Williams evokes the vast unknowable heavens, a timeless source of human questioning, then brings us back to the flat fenland soil which offers no answers, nor much emotional comfort, to our sense of vulnerability and smallness. This is classic Vaughan Williams, combining magical transcendence with a moving expression of human fragility.

In the final bars, the opening theme returns on violas, then viola solo, fading to silence. In the Fen Country ends with a bleak slipping away, as if dusk turns to night and softly clothes the landscape in darkness. We leave those wide eastern skies with a subdued mood, an emotional distance matching the distance of the wide horizons.

Perhaps this close, in its quietly disquieting way, is one reason that the piece has not yet secured a foothold in the repertoire. But if the fens are, as Graham Swift wrote, a landscape that “most approximates to Nothing”, then the strength of In The Fen Country is in showing that nothing – or nearly-nothing – can be compelling, beautiful, sad: even profound.

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